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Driving Impression: BMW X4

19 January 2015

Why buy the compromised and somewhat odd-looking BMW X4 when the perfectly acceptable X3 is parked right next to it on the showroom floor? You need only tackle a twisty bit of tarmac to discover the answer.

Right, let’s be honest: there are people who will sneer at the BMW X4. They’ll say the X4 is an ugly duckling with a compromised design and not very practical.

And, to a certain extent, they’ll be right. In an attempt to be both a sporty coupe and a practical SUV, BMW’s sports activity coupe has morphed into a rather odd hybrid of the two. Can you even call something with four doors a coupe? And who wants an SUV with a compromised loading area?

But understanding the point of the X4 requires you to view it from a specific perspective. You shouldn’t see it as an SUV with limited loading space and coupe looks. Instead, you should see it as a sporty coupe that offers SUV seating and practicality.

Don’t let that high ride and “X” in its name fool you – the BMW X4 is far more coupe than SUV. And once you realise this, the vehicle starts to make a lot more sense.

Yes, it doesn’t boast the same luggage space as the X3. The X3 has 550 litres of storage space that swells to 1600 litres with the rear seats down. The X4 has 500 litres and 1400 litres. And, yes, the sloping roof makes the X4’s cabin feel a tad more confining than that of the X3, and seriously hampers rear visibility. The high boot lid also makes it more difficult to load items.

But forget about all of this. Understand that the X4 was designed for fun and spirited driving, and 500 litres of boot space suddenly seems like a lot. The cabin suddenly appears ridiculously spacious and the ride height and visibility phenomenal.

Simply put, the X4 allows you to have your cake and eat it. The performance and handling isn’t excellent for an SUV. It is excellent – full stop. Like the Porsche Macan, the X4 can be described as a sportscar on stilts.

This isn’t merely an X3 with a sleeker body. No, a lot of work went into making it a sportier and more dynamic vehicle overall. It is 36mm lower than the X3, and the front seats are mounted 20mm lower than in the X3. The rear bench is 28mm lower.

The X4 also has a sporty suspension set-up and comes with BMW’s Performance Control as standard. This ensures that the drive is split between the rear wheels continuously and as required, which further improves traction, turn-in and directional stability. Working in tandem with the standard variable sport steering, these systems allow the BMW X4 to deliver driving dynamics that surpass those of the BMW X3 in terms of sportiness. An xDrive status display in the control panel uses three-dimensional graphics to keep the driver informed of the car’s body roll and pitch.

Under the bonnet, a wide range of powertrains are on offer. At the bottom end, the xDrive20i offers 135 kW and 270 Nm, while the 20d delivers 140 kW and 400 Nm. At the top end, the 35i offers 225 kW and 400Nm, and the 30d delivers 190 kW and 560 Nm.

The 20i and 20d models are mated to a standard eight-speed automatic transmission, while the more powerful derivatives boast a sportier version of the eight-speed ’box.

On the road, the X4 feels tight and controlled, and driving it on a mountain pass is tremendous fun. There is very little body roll and the vehicle turns into a corner with precision and great willingness. Frankly, the zeal with which a heavy vehicle like this can be chucked into corners is astonishing. The X4 remains sure-footed and unruffled.

You can tell that a lot of work has gone into the suspension set-up. It is firm and sporty, but never harsh. Damping remains more than adequate, ensuring a comfy ride. The lowering of the centre of gravity has paid dividends as well, allowing the X4 to remain planted in a corner with greater ease than the X3.

As for the engines, there isn’t a lemon in the range. Even the 20i and 20d deliver enough oomph to ensure a pleasant and exciting drive, but a vehicle such as the X4 positively screams for something a bit beefier. The 28i, 35i, and 30d all pack the sort of wallop that allows the suspension and sporty transmission to get a proper workout.

Niggles? Well, the brakes aren’t as impressive as the powertrain, but given the 1900kg weight of the X4, this is hardly surprising. The steering could possibly also do with a bit more feel, but it is very accurate and responsive.

If practicality and versatility are at the top of your list of demands when you go shopping for an SUV, the X4 is probably not for you. Also, if you want something that can handle dongas and vicious gravel, you should look elsewhere. But if you want an SUV that offers a coupe-like experience on tar, take a close look at BMW’s latest offering.